GWR and Network Performance — [Mr Clive Betts in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 10:18 am on 5th February 2019.

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Photo of Karin Smyth Karin Smyth Labour, Bristol South 10:18 am, 5th February 2019

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Betts, and I congratulate my hon. Friend Stephen Doughty on securing this debate and giving us the opportunity to speak on behalf of our constituents. Every delayed journey has a personal story, whether that is a missed connection for a holiday, or being late for a crucial job interview or hospital appointment. For all the promises we have been given, as we have heard, the figures remain poor.

I wish to talk about the increase in delays and the level of compensation offered to GWR customers, compared with those of other train operators. First, however, I will touch on the promised electrification. The delays and disruption to our current service have been significantly affected by the failings and mismanagement of the electrification programme by the Government and Network Rail. The electrification programme offered much in the south-west. We were promised increased capacity, improved reliability and a better passenger experience, but it was so poorly managed that costs rose by £1.2 billion in 2015 alone. I was on the Public Accounts Committee at the time, and our report into electrification called the situation “staggering and unacceptable”.

I recall the decision, in 2016, to defer the electrification project for the key sections between Bath Spa, Bristol Parkway and Bristol Temple Meads. At one evidence-taking sitting of the Committee I asked Department for Transport leaders whether they had looked at the devastating effects that that would have on the local economy around Bristol South. I was told by the then permanent secretary that the impact would not be “perceptible”. That attitude reinforces the need for more local control over decisions that affect the city’s infrastructure. They should not be left to civil servants in Whitehall with no understanding of local economic needs.

To add insult to injury, the complete mess that was made of the electrification project in our area was spun as a positive thing for passengers. We were told that the pausing of the programme meant that it would be possible instead to embark on customer improvements and to offer passengers benefits that newer trains with more capacity would provide, without the requirement for “costly and disruptive” electrification works. We were promised sleek new Hitachi trains, with more seats, more leg room and better wi-fi. Views differ about the trains. Personally, I quite like the seats. However, the catering is totally pot luck, and the split trains make boarding a nightmare. As to the quiet carriage—there is no indication that it is one. We certainly do not feel that the quality of the experience has improved. The issue remains. The Government made promises to us about electrification and investment in the infrastructure of our city, which is a net contributor to the Exchequer, and which is struggling with air pollution and would like the promises fulfilled.

Despite the lofty promises of 2016, the statistics today speak for themselves. Problems are on the rise, as has been set out in the very good Library briefing for the debate. Most critically, in each quarter of 2017-18 the proportion of trains cancelled or significantly late was greater than in the previous quarter—a trend that accounts for the decline in passenger satisfaction across the network. I understand that GWR’s response has been that improvements to the service have caused short-term disruption, but I expect we would all like to know how long the short term can go on. My constituents have suffered long enough at the hands of the chaos between the Department for Transport, Network Rail and Great Western Railway.

That brings me on to the issue of compensation. There is gross inequality in the amount of compensation being offered to passengers by the different rail operators across the country. The extent of the anomaly was first brought to my attention in July by a constituent who was suffering perpetual delays in her daily commute, with all the negative knock-on effects that that can bring. I wrote to the Secretary of State and argued that it cannot be fair that some train operating companies offer refunds for delays of over 15 minutes, whereas others offer them for delays of over 30 minutes—including, bizarrely, GWR on its Thames valley route. However, GWR does not offer refunds on 30-minute delays on the route serving my constituents. I also highlighted the discrepancy between the levels of refund paid by GWR for 60-minute delays. On local routes serving Bristol it is 50%, and yet on high-speed trains it is 100%. I urged the Secretary of State to seek amendments to the national rail conditions of travel, to reflect best practice in the industry, and to define 15 minutes as the new criterion for being late.

Three months later, the then Rail Minister replied and explained that the national rail conditions of travel was a national standard, setting out minimum standards, and that most train operating companies offered more than the minimum required. That is not an awful lot of good to my constituents. The reply also set out details of the Government’s Delay Repay scheme, which compensates passengers for significant delays and cancellations based on the fare paid, with 50% for delays of 30 to 59 minutes and 100% for delays of over 60 minutes. I am pleased about the new scheme, but, as the Library briefing highlights, previous initiatives have shown that it can take many years to bring about such changes. Based on previous initiatives, the Library estimates that the new version of the scheme would not be rolled out until the mid to late 2020s. That means years more injustice for my constituents who suffer poor service that is unacceptable. However, I try to remain hopeful. The letter informed me that the Department has requested GWR to implement the scheme before the current contract expires. The managing director of GWR also told me that the operator is engaged in discussions with the Department and that it would like to introduce the scheme, although it has not yet been finalised. That was some three months ago.

I want to ask the Minister today what the outcome of those discussions was. Will he confirm that GWR will indeed introduce the Delay Repay scheme in 2019, as previously indicated, so that I can reassure my constituents and they will no longer be caught in the bad-tempered arguments now going on between the train operator, the track operator, and the Government?